Last week I drove past my Grade School for the first time in several years. I was surprised by all the memories it stirred. I recalled friends, teachers, kick ball games on the playground, and my first trip to the principal’s office for inflating and popping sandwich bags in the lunch room. I also recalled my days as a crossing guard when I was in 6th grade. Unfortunately I don’t remember anything about heroically rescuing a child from impending danger as they crossed the road, although I’m sure it happened. What I do remember is the day my fellow cross guards used my orange cross guard belt to tie me to the stop sign on the corner and then took off running. Needless to say, that one hostile act has stuck with me and affected me deeper than any act of friendship or acceptance from the same boys. It was that moment I knew I was not completely safe in that group.
Safety is one of our greatest needs. The same is true when it comes to middle and high school small groups. As a small group leader I have learned the value of creating a culture in my small group where students feel safe. The key to this is making sure that each person feels accepted while navigating the inevitable tension that occurs when you put people together in such an intimate setting.
As a leader, it is my job to set the tone for my students. Several years ago, a new student joined my group. The group had been the same six guys for almost two years, and while they had learned to accept one another, they were very unaccepting of our new friend. To be fair he was a little strange, but that shouldn’t have mattered. I grew very frustrated with their rejection of him, and in a moment of exhaustion I said “Guys I know [he] is a huge dork, but we need to let him in the group.” Eleven years later, these guys still remind me of my insensitivity. While my intentions were good, my words only furthered the sense that this group was not a safe place for him.
Over the years I have learned that in order to maintain a spirit of acceptance in my group, I often have to enter the relational tension and help students navigate it. This isn’t easy, and sometimes I feel more like a referee than a shepherd, but it is crucial to helping my group feel safe.
When a group is safe, it allows a space for students to be real and ask real questions. When students get real, it creates real space for the Spirit to do a powerful work in their lives, and that’s what matters most.